Are you confident that you know the warning signs of early diabetes? In films, the famous images of diabetes symptoms are the shots of a young, thin woman sliding to the ground, limp and unconscious. Or there’s the frantic shot of the heroic mother thrusting some sweet, high-caloric snack into the hands of her shaky, confused child just before he collapses.
These scenarios are indeed potential moments in the diabetic condition, but they aren’t hyperglycemia symptoms (high blood sugar symptoms), which are the early signs of diabetes. Instead, these lingering cinematic pictures actually represent the scary effects of low blood sugar levels and symptoms of hypoglycemia, the very reverse of diabetes symptoms. This article provides diabetes facts and health tips to help you recognize the early signs of diabetes and answers to questions such as “Are sugar cravings a sign of diabetes?”
Do you have some diabetes symptoms and it’s causing you to think about your chances of having diabetes? It’s not a stretch and you want to try to catch the first signs of diabetes. Here are some diabetes facts. According to National Institute of Health, it’s estimated that 26 million Americans suffer from type 2 diabetes, while the worldwide incidence now tops the quarter-billion mark. With diabetes becoming more prevalent, it’s more important than ever to recognize diabetes symptoms. Statistics forecast the lifetime risk of diabetes for a U.S. person born in 2000 to be approximately 33 percent for men and 40 percent for women. Knowing these statistics, you may be wondering, “What are the early signs of diabetes?”
Catching diabetes early can be crucial. If you aren’t aware of the early symptoms, over time, without attention, the constant presence of unprocessed sugar in the blood can lead to serious complications. If you happen to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol (two other under-diagnosed conditions) in addition to the early symptoms of diabetes, the combination makes the body extremely vulnerable not only to heart disease and stroke but progressive kidney disease, eye disease and nerve disease.
Spotting the symptoms early, and embarking upon weight loss and an exercise program is now being shown to actually prevent the onset of diabetes. Some encouraging diabetes facts were found in the 2002 Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) study. Patients with pre-diabetic symptoms who lost approximately 7% of their body weight and committed to 150 minutes of exercise a week were able to reduce their risk of developing the disease by almost 60%.
When it comes to preventing and fighting diabetes, “Lifestyle changes worked even better than medication,” explains award-winning dietitian Melinda Maryniuk, director of the clinical education programs at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. “It’s been a real ‘good news’ message,” she says. Monitoring blood sugar levels and early symptoms of diabetes are helpful, but preventing the disease is the best way to battle diabetes.
But that good news doesn’t help most people unless a diagnosis has been made—even if early symptoms of diabetes are visible, she adds. “It’s the diagnoses that snap people into shape,” she says. “Yet because diabetes’ early symptoms are not scary or painful, it’s really easy to miss,” Maryniuk says. “People can be lingering with it for a long time.” Unfortunately, a lot of people may not recognize or choose not to address the beginning signs of diabetes until it is too late.
Know Your Risks
Diabetes is at the top of the list of under-diagnosed diseases in our current times. Some of this is due to people not spotting a diabetes symptom soon enough. A 2011 paper from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta reported that nearly 27% of the people with diabetes in the United States do not know that they have it. This may be because people don’t get enough diabetes information to help them complete a diabetes diagnoses. Without early detection, your risks of becoming seriously ill increase.
The rampant form of the disease right now—type 2 or Adult Onset Diabetes—has been linked to the following conditions: obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and old age. Additional risk factors include a family history of diabetes, a history of gestational diabetes, impaired glucose metabolism (i.e. the “pre-diabetes” designation), and race and ethnicity. Recent diabetes facts suggest that African Americans, Hispanic or Latino Americans, American Indians, and some Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders have a particularly high risk for type 2 diabetes and high blood sugar symptoms. “Basically, every ethnic group except non-Hispanic whites is at risk,” says Maryniuk. If you fall within one of those ethnic groups, it’s even more important for you to be aware of early diabetes symptoms.
Type 1 diabetes symptoms are a bit different than the type 2 signs. Type 1 diabetes accounts for only 5-10% of all diagnosed diabetes in the United States, is most often contracted during childhood and the teen years, primarily targets the Caucasian population, and divides equally between males and females. Type 1 is characterized as an autoimmune disease since the discovery of the antibodies that destroy the patients’ pancreatic beta cells (the source of insulin). Diabetes care for type 1 diabetics may vary from the care provided for type 2 diabetics. To survive the, people with type 1 must have insulin delivered by injection or a pump. It’s extremely crucial for these patients to monitor their blood sugar levels and any symptoms that the diabetes is getting worse.
If you have a family member with type 1, be on the look out for diabetic symptoms because you are at an increased risk of having the disease. Even if you don't observe signs and symptoms, blood tests are now available to see if a child is carrying a predisposition for the disease. Dr. Jenna Bollyky, a clinical diabetes investigator at the Benaroya Institute in Seattle says that about 50% of type 1 patients have these genetic signs and symptoms of diabetes; while in the other 50% of cases the disease “comes from a virus we don’t yet understand.” Since researchers now understand the type 1 class as an autoimmune disease, people with an autoimmune disease in their family history should react to the first sign of a diabetes symptom because they may have an increased risk for type 1 diabetes. However it can be difficult to spot the early symptoms of diabetes when they are easily disguised.
Early Symptoms of Diabetes
How does one distinguish between feeling lousy after a meal and having a diabetes symptom? Large meals, non-nutritional snacks or an alcohol-fueled “liquid” dinner all render the body uncomfortable and can lead to early diabetes symptoms. Excessive thirst that may follow such a binge is easily attributed to the saltiness of the food or the hangover effect of alcohol, rather than the first signs of diabetes. If one is quickly hungry after eating, it’s frequently blamed on the “unfilling” nature of a certain food type, rather than considered as an early diabetes symptom. And if you’re swigging from a water bottle all day long, it won’t seem off base to be urinating quite frequently. These are all the beginning signs of diabetes, yet people often ignore them because they think there’s another explanation. Arm yourself with the right information on diabetes so that you spot the warning signs.
These three symptoms are the cornerstone of diabetes’ early signs. Doctors call early signs of diabetes “the polys”: 1) polyuria (urinating a lot), 2) polyphagia (eating a lot) and 3) polydipsia (drinking a lot). Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes share these three main warning signs; however, they tend to come on more quickly and powerfully in a type 1 diagnosis.
People often ask if sugar cravings are a sign of diabetes. Don’t mistakenly look only at your reaction to episodes of highly sugared food to see how you’re feeling. Every time a diabetic eats any kind of carbohydrate foods—anything from fruits and vegetables to pizza and beer or chocolate cake—the glucose that enters their bloodstream isn’t processed properly, so you may witness early signs of diabetes as a result of eating many different types of foods.
Other telling diabetic symptoms include changes in eyesight due to the buildup of glucose in the lens of the eye. Therefore some other early signs of diabetes may include anything from simple blurry vision to pain or pressure in one or both eyes or the sudden appearance of dark or floating spots in one’s field of sight.
Diabetes’ early symptoms may also include numbness and/or tingling in the feet or hands, unexpected weight loss, and dry mouth or breath that smells fruity. Dry or itchy skin, erectile dysfunction, recurrent infections, external ear infections (swimmer’s ear), slow-healing wounds or infections, and cardiac arrhythmia are also early symptoms of diabetes.
Don’t be surprised if you notice a diabetes symptom or two if you’re pregnant. If you’ve been diagnosed with gestational diabetes during a pregnancy, diabetes facts suggest that you are at a greater risk for contracting the disease again. And if you were not routinely checked for diabetes during pregnancy, and you delivered a baby nine pounds or larger, it may be a symptom of diabetes. (Extra glucose gets to the fetus and boosts its size.) So, if you think you had gestational diabetes, be on the look out for early symptoms of diabetes later in life.
In type 1, diabetes facts suggest that the onset ages for children are 5-7 years old and then again during the teen years. With children, the early signs of diabetes are more dramatic, though they can be puzzling at first. A sudden pattern of bed-wetting in a potty-trained child or a noticeable change in temperament in a teen may be the first symptom of diabetes to emerge. Pretty soon, however, you’ll see an unmistakably odd combination of weight loss and lethargy and thirst. Dr. Jenna Bollyky, diagnosed at age 16 with diabetes, described her diabetes symptoms as being a stupendous combination of lethargy and hunger mixed with sudden weight loss. She described reaching for a box of crackers and thinking, “The more of these I eat, the skinnier I get!”
In general, the symptoms of excessive hunger, thirst and urination are all often written off to other causes. Sometimes these signs are so faint in the beginning that a patient can’t recognize them.
Making the Diagnosis
We all have a ballpark figure for our weight, our height and our blood pressure. But do you know your blood glucose numbers? You shouldn’t wait to spot a diabetes symptom before finding out. Many people do not get their first blood sugar level screening for diabetes until age 40. Yet Maryniuk counsels everyone to find out their numbers, especially if you’ve got high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol and high triglycerides, a family history of diabetes, a history of gestational diabetes, a 9 lb-and-more baby, or if you belong to any of the ethnic or minority groups at high risk for diabetes. If you’re displaying any early diabetes symptoms, you should also get your blood sugar levels checked.
In a random office blood test, normal glucose levels should fall between 70 and 125 mg/dl. If they breach 125, additional tests will be ordered for further diagnosis because this could be one of the early symptoms of diabetes. These tests include the Oral Glucose Tolerance test (OGT), which tests your blood after drinking a glucose drink; the Fasting Plasma Glucose test (FPG), which must be preceded by an eight-hour fast; and/or the A1C test (Estimated Average Glucose), which measures one’s estimated average blood sugar level over the past three months. Keep an eye out for high blood sugar levels and symptoms of diabetes mentioned earlier. Catching the beginning signs of diabetes early will help you manage the disease.
The greatest benefit to early and regular testing is the ability to catch rising blood sugar levels and symptoms before the disease is established. Before people develop type 2 diabetes, they almost always have pre-diabetes—blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not yet in the diabetes range. An estimated 57 million people in the United States have pre-diabetes right now, and have failed to identify early diabetes symptoms. Recent diabetes facts have indicated that some long-term damage to the body may already begin during this earlier phase, especially within the heart and circulatory system.
But the great news is that the recent Diabetes Prevention Program study conclusively showed that pre-diabetes responded very well to lifestyle changes. So if you’re showing early symptoms, it’s not too late to make a change. In terms of lowering blood sugar numbers and delaying or preventing the onset of the actual disease, diet and exercise were shown to work better than any medication in the trial. The program included 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity, coupled with a 7% reduction in body weight.
“Diabetes is the ultimate self-management disease,” says Maryniuk. Diabetics must get to know their food, their blood sugar levels, and the effects of stress, other medications and travel on their sugar levels. They also need to become familiar with diabetes symptoms so they can recognize whenever something is wrong. “No one can do it for you,” she explains.
So whether or not you have faced a diagnosis yet, if you are in one of the high-risk categories or think you’re noticing the early signs of diabetes, then mastering the art of self-management is obviously a practice that should not wait. Learn to boost your fiber intake, eat smaller meals, and count carbohydrate grams (placing preference on those with a low-glycemic index) and you’ll dramatically change the level of stress on your pancreas, circulatory system and kidneys without medication. Combine that with a daily 30-minute round of moderate exercise and you’ll instantly be on a diet regimen that is proven to have true healing properties. And be sure to have your blood sugar levels checked at the first sign of diabetes symptoms.